Film & TV

Costume Designer Joanna Johnston On Creating Fashion Magic For "The Witches"

We speak with Johnston about outfitting Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer in acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis' new adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved story
Reading time 6 minutes
Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch in "The Witches"

With a track record that includes the critically-acclaimed titles Forrest Gump, War Horse and Lincoln, costume designer Joanna Johnston has had a hand some of Hollywood's most influential movies. It comes with the territory of collaborating with film mavericks like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, whom Johnston has worked closely with for over two decades.

Her latest project with Zemeckis is a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, designing costumes for a coven of terrifying witches who front as normal women and lure children to their demise. Zemeckis' take on the 1983 children’s fantasy novel places the characters in 1960s Alabama with an African American protagonist and his grandmother, giving the story an inclusive update. 

Juxtaposing the witches that roam the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel (where the story is set),  Octavia Spencer's Grandma offers a sense of warmth and home, outfitted in floral prints and comfortable house dresses. In sharp contrast is Anne Hathaway's Grand High Witch, whose red lips give way to a wicked, sharp-toothed grin; coiffed wigs and chic hats cover a bald head; and gloves and pointed-toe heels conceal claws. Fans of Anjelica Huston's Grand High Witch from the '90s won't see the same horror-level makeup, as CGI and strategic prosthetics transform Hathaway on-screen. Joined by dozens of witches from around the world, the costumes act as the ultimate disguises to their true forms.

Below, L'Officiel speaks with Johnston about the defining features of the witches' costumes, from drawing on Spencer's personal background to paying homage to the beginning of her own costuming career.

You've worked on a couple of children's movies before, but they've been few and far between your other work on period pieces and action films. What drew you to The Witches?

I don't usually choose films for the genres, but rather, for the storytelling. For instance, I used to say I was never interested in doing sci-fi, and then I ended up doing a partly science fiction film, because the story was so amazing. I think it's about the story and the directors. The BFG, Polar Express and The Witches all fall between Bob Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg — they're the two directors that I work with most frequently. It was them more than the type of films, so to speak.


This telling of The Witches may be a new generation's first introduction to the story. How did you, Robert and the rest of the team begin imagining the world you wanted to create?

Roald Dahl is majorly important as a storyteller, and he's enormous in Great Britain. There are very few children, as I understand it, who haven't been introduced to his stories in one form or another, and The Witches is a huge point of reference. Perhaps less so in America, but here, Road Dahl is ever-present in the psyche of storytelling. The icing on the cake was that [Robert Zemeckis] moved the story from the 1980s, when it was written, to the 1960s, and then set it in America.

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Anjelica Huston in the 1990 version of "The Witches"

Since the film is set in Alabama, did you do any research into the fashion of that particular period and place?

It was actually an international research, because the witches at the convention come from all over the world, so we had a whole lot of witches representing their respective countries. I went all over the place. It was an extensive research platform to play on.


What were the influences behind Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch costumes?

There were some icons of the ‘60s, and I did an homage to my boss Anthony Powell, who I worked with back when I was an assistant. He used to do these fabulous, dramatic black-and-white [costumes] as one of his specialties. I wanted [Hathaway] to be glamorous, the one that the other witches would look up to, so she had the greatest impact out of everyone. It's all about her vanity and her projection. 

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Octavia Spencer's character, Grandma, wears a lot of prints. What was the choice behind that?

She has great standards in her dressing and she always looks lovely. Early on, I decided that I wanted her to be in print pretty much all the time. Flowers and details — she's the polar opposite of the Grand High Witch.

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Octavia is actually from Alabama. Did she give you any input, since she's familiar with the setting?

I talked to her about her childhood. I knew that women during that time would wear housecoats when doing domestic chores, and she reiterated that to me about her own family — you'd keep all your better clothes for going out, but at home, you'd have these house dresses. They're practical, but they can also be very good-looking, made out of cottons and nylons. I definitely tapped into her experiences.

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Accessories are a main component of the witches' identities. What was it like coordinating those elements for so many characters?

Complicated! Witches have claws as hands and feet, so I came up with this concept where all the witches wear gloves to cover up their clawed hands. They have two fingers, which are false in a five-fingered glove — if you look at the film closely, they're rigid. They don't move because they're actually stuffed. And the shoes had to be long and pointy, so they were elongated to accommodate their clawed feet. 

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